Greenlandic Vikings traded walrus ivory with Ukraine

Historians have long believed that walrus ivory traded throughout Ukraine and Russia during the Middle Ages came from the Barents Sea.

Fragments of walrus bones uncovered in Ukraine have yielded evidence of intercontinental ivory trade between Old Norse colonies in Greenland and Eastern Europe.

Archaeologists discovered the unusual finds during excavations begun in 2007 at 35 Spaska Street, Kyiv.

The excavations revealed layers of settlement spanning several eras, with the best-preserved dating from the 10th to early 13th centuries, along with artefacts including glass, gold wires, and carved pieces used for the Viking board game Hnefatafl.

Three of the walrus bone specimens uncovered at Spaska Street in Kyiv. IMAGE: Valery Krymchak.

The nine bone fragments of various sizes were retrieved from a 12th-century settlement layer, and identified as parts of walrus snouts.

‘This came as a total surprise to us. We’d never heard of similar discoveries in Kyiv,’ said Natalia Khamaiko, excavation leader and archaeologist at Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences.

‘Walrus ivory was a very popular raw material in Europe in the Middle Ages. It was used to create the most exquisite objects in church art, but gradually also finer versions of everyday objects like game pieces and knife handles,’ said James Barrett, professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s University Museum.

When walrus tusks were exported, they were left attached to part of the snout bone, which is what the team uncovered at Spaska Street.

A previous study led by Mr Barrett in 2019 revealed that Greenland was essentially the only source of walrus products on the Western European market. Yet it was still assumed that walrus ivory traded throughout Ukraine and Russia in the Middle Ages was regionally sourced from the Barents Sea and Russian Arctic.

However, according to a paper recently published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences, ancient DNA analysis conducted at the University of Oslo identified a genetic signature within five of the nine bone specimens from Kyiv that relates to a clade of walruses only found in Greenland and eastern parts of Canada. These findings were supported with isotopic analysis.

Games pieces found in Ukraine, interpreted as having been carved in the form of a religious figure. IMAGE: Natalia Khamaiko, Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences.

Furthermore, walrus snouts were often thinned before export so that the tusks could be snapped off easily. According to Barrett, six of the bone fragments showed clear signs of having been worked in the typical Greenland fashion.

‘All the source materials point to the same source – Greenland – so this is a result we can trust,’ commented Bastiaan Star, associate professor at the University of Oslo.

This study suggests that demand for Norse Greenlandic walrus ivory stretched beyond Western Europe into Ukraine, and perhaps onward to the Islamic world and Asia.

‘In the 12th century, Kyiv was a medieval metropolis and the capital of a state with an economy built on trade,’ said Khamaiko. ‘What we’ve now discovered about the walrus bones shows that Kyiv was an unusually large trading centre, with goods flowing through from distant parts of the world.’

The results also help elucidate previously published evidence of massive walrus depletion in Greenland during Viking occupation.